London Open House(day 2): I've been on fewer visits today, but they've been rather more varied and spread out than yesterday. I'll save one of them for tomorrow, but here's everything you need to know about the rest.
the Home Office: There used to be three hideous hulking office blocks in Marsham Street, inhabited by the Department of the Environment and wrecking views of Westminster Abbey and Parliament. No longer. These 60s eyesores have been demolished and replaced by three less intrusive buildings, just six storeys high, now home to the newly reorganised Home Office. For Open House they threw open their security doors (to a mere handful of punters who happened to spot the late-entrant tour hidden away on the website) and let us see inside Jack Straw's Empire of Justice. Hello to both of my readers who work there (or thereabouts), nice offices you've got. But the main focus of the tour was to view the public art around the outside of the three buildings - a series initiated when the new occupiers realised they ought to engage more with the surrounding environment. The rooftop is edged with coloured glass panels which cast mid-afternoon down light into the street [photo]. A mysterious 4-part stencilled motif hangs above the main entrance [photo] (three segments are identical, but rotated, while one is different). The motif is repeated in miniature on various other walls, allegedly hiding a secret message known only to a handful of civil servants. Two lockable walkways cut through the Home Office site, each with another special artwork. A chain of fluorescent tubes lights the way beneath one connecting bridge, while tiled "carpets" pave the northern passage [photo]. Alas the tiles here have proved rather slippery in wet weather and so the walkway currently has to be sealed off when it rains, for health and safety reasons. It would, presumably, be rather awkward for the department to have to sue itself.
Shri Swaminarayan Mandir: The largest Hindu temple outside India can, of course, be found in Neasden. It's a mile long walk from the tube station, along the smelly North Circular and past IKEA. And then suddenly, at the end of a very normal suburban street (just behind a mini roundabout), the mandir's marble pinnacles rise abruptly skyward [photo]. This is no urban Disney castle, this is an important place of daily worship and devoted pilgrimage. Entrance through the ceremonial front gate and up the grand staircase is for special occasions only [photo]. Daily visitors enter via a slightly less impressive route - via the bag/camera deposit kiosk in the car park, then on through a metal detector and security check into the main building. Shoes off (men to the left, ladies to the right) and spiritual inspiration awaits. Directly ahead is a huge pillar-less prayer hall, not especially ornate but capable of accommodating thousands of contemplative worshippers. The main temple is to be found along a trophy-lined corridor, which could very easily be in a golf club or sports centre, and up a slippery marble flight of stairs (choose your socks with care). Several signs politely request absolute silence. The level of intricate detail in the carved walls, roof and pillars is astonishing. Every surface has been loving sculpted to create miniature deities and floral relief. It's hard to believe that the 26000 constituent parts were shipped across from India to be assembled here like a vast divine jigsaw, but it's easy to see why the temple inspires both awe and peace. And yet somehow it's not as big on the inside as it appeared on the outside - a sort of reverse Tardis, I thought. As locals circuited the perimeter muttering prayers and offering up donations to the gods, we Open House visitors felt honoured to be invited into the heart of a thriving spiritual community.
The Roof Gardens: Unseen above Kensington High Street, on top of what used to be the Derry & Toms department store, is a sixth floor green oasis. Its existence explains the appearance this morning in a sidestreet, next to Gap and M&S, of an ever-lengthening queue full of grey-flecked horticulturalist thrill-seekers. If you weren't in line by twenty to nine you faced a very long wait for the lifts. There are three gardens altogether, each as unexpected as the next, as you wander round the rooftop plateau. First a herbaceous Spanish Garden, very Moor-ish, with blooming flowerbeds, watery trench and grape-twined balcony [photo]. The illusion is nigh perfect, bar the church spire nextdoor, and it's easy to forget that this is central Kensington [photo]. Built in 1938, trees and shrubs have had plenty of time to establish themselves, and the soil is deeper than it looks. The Roof Gardens are now part of the Richard Branson empire, and a Virgin flag flutters above the mini-bar and hospitality tent. Don't worry, he's not ruined it. Next to visit, down a long walkway, is the Tudor Courtyard. With white tables and chairs littered everywhere it looks more like a cobbled pub backyard, to be honest, but with much nicer ivy-clad walls. And finally a long thin Woodland Garden, complete with artificial stream, ducks and flamingos. Yes, honest, they've got those up here too - this is proper geographically incorrect decadence. From one corner there's a fine view out across West London [photo] (I've seen better, but still glorious on a bright blue morning such as this). The vista is rather better from the restaurant terrace above, now with trees and shrubs in the foreground, and the London Eye and Gherkin lined up behind the dome of the Royal Albert Hall. Don't tell the even-longer-now queue down below, but the Roof Gardens are always open to the public (so long as no private event has nabbed them first), so there's hope for everyone who still wants to view this elevated horticultural secret.